Back in the late 1970s, as the Golden Age of Directors lay dying amid the shattered detritus of auteurial overindulgence, a then-unknown Paramount executive named Don Simpson circulated a famous (or perhaps infamous) memo. Studios were not obligated to make art, he argued. They were a business first and foremost, and their primary obligation was to put bums on seats. He and his eventual partner Jerry Buckheimer proved it with their first film Flashdance: 80s bubblegum at its purest which, when coupled with the already burgeoning careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, formally ushered in the era of the popcorn blockbuster.
Paramount certainly took Simpson’s memo to heart, eventually producing such fizzy bon-bons as Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun and Footloose, the last of which officially kicks off our 30th anniversary retrospective on the films of 1984. The year produced its share of genuine classics, as well as guilty-pleasure embodiments of the era of excess. Footloose lies somewhere between them: a congenial, almost plotless exercise in MTV flash that endures precisely because it captures the spirit of its time so well.
And clearly, it spoke deeply to all us feathered-hair-sporting, leg-warmer-wearing, keyboard-necktie-loving young people of the period, convincing us to get up off our feet and stick it to The Man in an enthusiastic but ultimately harmless act of rebellion. In this case, The Man is John Lithgow’s small-town preacher, who has convinced his congregation that dancing is The Devil and formally outlawed it. This sends the local teens into a major-league bumfest before the arrival of Chicago bad boy Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) who views the law as an affront to his very soul, and vows to make the town safe for Walkman-obsessed high school students everywhere.
That, in essence, is all it’s got, bolstered by extended sequences that feature nothing but the youthful young cast boogying down to as many one-hit wonders as director Herbert Ross can cram into it. It’s not about genuine youthful rebellion any more than Star Wars is about armed political struggle. It’s a carefully crafted façade, catering to teens’ instinctive desire to push the boundaries. Who bans dancing? That’s just the kind of thing to piss off anyone under voting age, regardless of demographics. Thus instilled with a sense of universal righteousness, we could all watch the fly moves of Bacon and his buddies without worrying about any actual controversies or real fallout from their iconoclasm.
From the perspective of grizzled adulthood, it’s easy enough to snark, and Footloose has absolutely nothing in its empty little head to discourage it… except for the fact that it never pretends to be anything else. If you embrace the nostalgia going in, it succeeds far more than you’d think. The film made Bacon a star for a reason, drawing from a large reservoir of youthful charisma tinged by just enough resentment to qualify as a genuine rebel. He’s joined by a gaggle of familiar pre-star faces, including Chris Penn, Sarah Jessica Parker and Dianne Wiest; none of them have much to do, but they all go about doing it quite well. Lithgow becomes something of a secret weapon in this regard, bringing nuance and subtlety to a role that should by all rights have been a one-note ogre.
The rest of the film quickly follows suit. The soundtrack plays like a throwback weekend: peppy and energetic without forcing you to actually, you know, think. The wafer-thin storyline – involving an effort to change hearts and minds as well as letting that stuffy old preacher relent in time for the big high school dance – stays upbeat and stylish, with simple conflicts and equally simple resolutions that leave everyone smiling by the closing credits. It’s pure product, and because it carries no pretensions to anything else, it never offends or hits a sour note while delivering it to us.
Furthermore, because it arrived at the moment it did, it dates itself in the best possible way for a little throwback kick. You’d never mistake the era in which it was released for anything but Reagan’s America, leaving the best parts for us to feast on anytime we want, and quietly forgetting the more problematic components that went into its creation. Simpson and Bruckheimer aren’t on the credits, but you can see their fingerprints all over it: an effort that, for better or worse came to exemplify this period of filmmaking. Footloose survives as a time capsule, still able to put the tap in our toes despite the fact that it can’t do anything more than the one trick. Thinking is for another time. Right now, we just gotta dance!